Proving that ‘gross out’ comedies aren’t just the preserve of modern Hollywood, Richard Bean’s version of Moliere’s play is seriously scatological, from its stool-obsessed protagonist to a musical ode to ‘blood in your poo’ and your enjoyment levels are likely defined by your tolerance for this kind of humour.
Tony Robinson plays Argan, the titular hypochondriac, a man whose days are dictated by his bodily functions, and who spends his time arguing with his spirited servant, Toinette (Tracie Bennett) while remaining oblivious to the infidelities of his scheming gold-digger wife Beline (Imogen Stubbs) and his daughter Angelique’s infatuation with young apprentice Cleanthe.
Directors Lindsay Posner and Lisa Blair imbue the piece with plenty of energy, if not a lot of subtlety. Robinson is clearly having a ball as one of the original Grumpy Old Men, and Bennett is a perfect foil, playing Tointette with the kind of northern prickliness that suggests she spends her time off in the Rovers Return. Stubbs excels, too, although her adulterous spouse has more than the hint of pantomime villain about her. The young lovers are always fairly thankless roles in these things – all the interesting action is happening around them – but Jordan Metcalfe and Lisa Diveney are likeable enough that you root for them, and Craig Gazey is splendidly oleaginous as Angelique’s betrothed.
As an adaptation, it’s a lot of fun if not entirely successful. Admittedly, it’s presented as a period piece (though Paul Wills’ stylish set becomes a tad icky once you realise the shelves full of bottles are Argan’s preserved waste), but it jars to hear ‘lesbian’ and ‘hermaphrodite’ used as comedy insults.
An overlong first half means that the finale feels both a long time coming and slightly abrupt, and there’s a tonal mismatch between the main play itself and its musical interludes. Performed with swagger and charisma by Musical Director Andrew Bevis (supported by musicians in hospital scrubs) these are hilarious but feel a bit misplaced (and opening with two numbers in a row felt a tad overindulgent). It’s hard not to love a song that proclaims ‘say yes to drugs, god bless to drugs – life would be hell, tumours would swell, without drugs!’, but with their bang-up-to-date references to Ebola, their very modernity clashes with such a traditional presentation of the play.
There are, of course, ways to integrate modern music into period productions – directors such as Jessica Swale have shown how this can be done with flair – but here it’s just feels abrupt and clumsy, as if someone has taken a few songs from a contemporary musical revue and hastily grafted them onto an existing play.